The Children of Jocasta
Natalie Haynes
Picador
304pp
Paperback, £8.99

Full of power struggles, complicated families, intrigue and danger, ancient myths have an enduring appeal and remain popular in contemporary literature. Re-telling them is not a new practice, but continues to offer fresh perspectives on familiar narratives.

In her latest book, the writer and broadcaster Natalie Haynes (whose fourth series of Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics has recently aired on BBC Radio 4) breathes new life into the chilling and well-known tale of Oedipus, ill-fated king of Thebes. The Children of Jocasta focuses on two somewhat side-lined female figures of Greek mythology, Oedipus' mother and wife Jocasta, and their daughter Ismene (sister of the more famous Antigone, the titular character of the Sophoclean tragedy).

Chapters alternate their focus between Ismene,'cursed daughter of cursed parents', who was stabbed in her palace home; and Jocasta, hastily married off to the older king Laius. Both inhabit the same space, though at different times, and the continually shifting focus between these two women who are the same age, 15, when we first meet them, emphasises their closeness, which becomes all the more obvious as the book progresses. Their intimately linked stories (which feature overlapping characters, such as Jocasta's brother/Ismene's uncle, Creon) are told through gripping and fast-paced prose, but it remains clear which of these royals we are following in each chapter through considered use of narratorial voices: first person for Ismene, and third for Jocasta.

The Children of Jocasta is a truly enjoyable read, with an intriguing take on the mythical sphinx. Long-lost rituals come to life, and we are drawn into archaic anxieties about prophecies, partners, prayers and plague. Haynes makes the most of the ancient material, enriching her narrative with a high level of detail. From scenes painted on walls to different types of drinking vessels, these immersive touches deftly conjure up the sights, smells and flavours wafting through the dusty heat of ancient Thebes.

Lucia Marchini

 

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